Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 23 February 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The committee is now in public session. We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to this committee. He is accompanied by Mr. Mark Brady, deputy director of audit.
Apologies have been received from Deputies Shane Cassells and Marc MacSharry.
The minutes of the meetings of 15 and 16 February 2017 have been circulated. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. I do not think any particular matter arises from the minutes. If there is we can discuss the matter under any other business.
The next item is correspondence for today's meeting. No. 297A is a briefing document from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport for today’s meeting. Is it agreed that we note and publish it? Agreed.
No. 312A is an opening statement from Mr. Graham Doyle, Secretary General, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We will note and publish that.
Category B correspondence is from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers in follow-up to previous meetings. The first item, since the last meeting, is correspondence dated 6 February 2017 from Dr. Fergal Lynch, Secretary General, Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This is a follow-up to the appearance of the Department and Tusla before the committee on 19 January 2017. We will note and publish that. People are free to make comments once the correspondence is published.
No. 300B is correspondence dated 16 February 2017 from Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl, An Ceann Comhairle, regarding the staff resources and the PAC secretariat. As we dealt with this matter in private session yesterday we can note the matter.
No. 301B is correspondence dated 15 February 2017 from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills regarding the production of financial statements at the National College of Art and Design. The correspondence states that the college is working with the Comptroller and Auditor General and that while there are ongoing compliance issues the Department is confident that these issues will be rectified in the near future. I am sure through the natural course of the examination of the accounts and statements laid weekly we can keep an eye out for this. We will watch and monitor the matter as we go along.
No. 302B is correspondence dated 15 February 2017 from Mr. Graham Doyle, Secretary General, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport regarding the presentation of the 2012 and 2013 financial statements for The Gathering Project 2013 Limited. They were laid on the 2 February and were noted by the committee at last week's meeting. We will note the correspondence.
No. 303B is correspondence dated 17 February 2017 from Mr. Tony O’Brien, Director General of the HSE. The letter recommends that before the Department and the HSE are before the Committee on 9 March 2017, to discuss the fair deal scheme, that the committee visit a public residential community facility. Would any member like to comment on the invitation that is worthy of consideration? We have received a letter from Mr. Tony O’Brien who has suggested that when considering this matter we should look at some of the State nursing homes and see how a good one operates. I note that he has recommended we visit a place in Mountmellick, County Laois. Perhaps it is a coincidence but the place is located in my area. Maybe it is not a coincidence. I do not know. Mr. O'Brien has a point. We must get a proper feeling of what is provided in HSE institutions versus what is provided in nursing homes.
We know HSE institutions have a lot of people that the nursing homes do not cater for. If we are evaluating them strictly on a cost basis and on value for money we have to take into account the quality of the service being provided. I think that is what is behind that particular letter.
I certainly welcome that because the level of dependency that I have seen in public nursing homes in Galway and in the county, when we had one in Galway, was extraordinary. There is a facile debate, not even a debate but a facile public relations campaign, going on into private nursing homes to suggest they are much cheaper. Certainly I welcome that as the complexity of finance for public nursing homes is not being looked at.
I will put in one more item on this. While I stress I had no role in or knowledge of the invitation before it arrived, if the committee agrees to visit Mountmellick I would put in a proviso that we visit the Abbeyleix community nursing unit on the same day, though not to add any extra time. The reason for this is a decision by the HSE to close that unit. In all published documentation, it is listed as the most expensive unit in the country per patient per week. I think we should have a short visit there. The level of patients in it has diminished dramatically but the cost structure is very high. It think it would give a good balance. Mountmellick might be excellent in terms of facilities and costs whereas Abbeyleix might provide a contrast. I leave it open to the committee. I am not suggesting anything. I am guided by the committee and I am conscious that it is my own constituency.
I assume the proposal the HSE has made is in the context of the cost comparisons between public and private facilities. I have no difficulty with it. I think it is a good idea for us to visit any one of the public ones but if that is the case should we also, on the basis of balance, visit a private facility?
We will try to set a date for the visit to Mountmellick. Perhaps we might arrange with some of the nursing home associations to have a visit to a private nursing home that can be reached on the same day, rather than heading to somewhere 150 miles away or something like that. Or do we want to go there?
I think it is a good idea. The comparison has to be fair. I do not think any of us will dispute that. It is more than money.
Where there have been such visits previously, is there a better take-up from committee members when it is closer? If only one or two people go will we get full value for it?
We will agree that we will not travel unless there is a reasonable quorum. There is no point in two people travelling. Unless four, five or six are travelling, and if more all the better, we will not go. It would not inform the full committee if only two or three people were to go. Will we ask the secretariat to contact members to try to determine a suitable day? Perhaps Tuesday morning before we get here would be appropriate. We could do a 9 a.m. visit. Mountmellick is only an hour from Dublin.
Yes. She could take it into Portlaoise from Galway and Portarlington. We will work out the transport arrangements. We agree that it is a good idea. Maybe we will drop the Abbeyleix visit but should we visit a private nursing home at the same time? I am very conscious of a group of us walking into a nursing home. I am sensitive about that. I would not like to intrude on any patient or resident's dignity.
I do not think we should rush off to look at nursing homes. I do not think it is our role. A particular point has come up here in respect of high levels of dependency in public nursing homes. That is our starting point. We should make decisions on what we will do after that, rather than rushing into it.
I beg the Chairman's pardon. I am not saying that we should not visit a public nursing home but that the issue that has come before us is the high dependency level and issues like that. I do not think we should rush off to visit a public nursing home and feel we have to balance it with private nursing homes. I do not think that is necessary at this point. I think it is necessary to gather information and elucidate what the HSE is trying to point out to us, that is, that there is an unfair comparison. Perhaps we could include such a visit after that. I would have no problem with that.
Perhaps then we will pick a private nursing home more convenient to here. We will agree in principle to accept the invitation, subject to timing, but I think it will probably be after Easter in any event. We will not set a date just yet. I am not quite sure. We will ask the secretary to liaise with a view to facilitating this. We want to respect the dignity of the residents when we visit the place too. I am sure the HSE will ensure that happens in any event.
Wednesday and Thursday are not going to be good days and people will not want to take a Monday. Perhaps a Tuesday morning. We will ask the secretariat to liaise. If we get it far enough in advance it should be possible. Again I stress that a minimum number going is an important factor as well. We will move on.
No. 307B is correspondence dated 15 February 2017 from NAMA regarding clarification of information sought from Project Eagle. What is that?
We received this last week and it is part of our report. It is just clarifying information. We will note that. We have already examined that in our report.
No. 308B 1-3 is correspondence dated 17 February 2017 from Maurice Quinn, Secretary General at the Department of Defence. This is in follow-up to the appearance of the Department before the committee on 26 January and its subsequent request for information. We might hold this over until next week. I have not had an opportunity to study it and I would like to do so. We will hold it over to next week. It will be on next week's correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Category C correspondence is regarding private individuals. No. 299C is correspondence dated 10 February 2017 received from an individual in respect of the North Meath Community Development Association. This matter is being dealt with in the Department and we await a response from the Minister. When we receive that we will advance it further. We will note that.
No. 304C is correspondence received from an individual alleging misconduct by members of An Garda Síochána and a waste of public money by gardaí, the Judiciary and State-paid solicitors in another Department. I propose that the Clerk to the Committee advise the person to take the matter up with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission in the first instance. If there is alleged corruption in the Garda or use of resources to intimidate then that may be investigated. Is it agreed that we tell the individual, if he has a complaint against the gardaí, to take it to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission? Agreed.
No. 305C is correspondence dated 13 February 2017 from an individual following correspondence from the committee. While the individual may feel that the committee is dismissing his correspondence by contacting the Arts Council for an explanation, it is normal procedure for the secretariat to contact the relevant body. We considered this individual's correspondence at some length quite recently. We will write back to the individual and state that we are noting his correspondence and we now consider the case closed. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 306C is correspondence dated 13 February 2017 from the social care division of the HSE in follow-up to correspondence to the committee received regarding Nua Healthcare. Does Deputy Cullinane want to comment on this? Should we forward it to Nua Healthcare or does he want to come back to it next week?
We will agree to note it. The Deputy is happy to note that.
That is correspondence received. The next item is on reports and statements of account received since the last meeting. I will open up this particular topic by acknowledging a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General was published on this issue during the week, that is, Special Report No. 95, financial reporting in the public sector. It was published on 21 February 2017. It was completed by the Comptroller and Auditor General in respect of the timeliness of financial reporting in the public sector. Most public sector bodies are required to have their accounts prepared within three months. Two thirds of all bodies missed that deadline. That is 200 out of approximately 300. We are not talking about the direct line Departments, which meet the deadlines for annual audit and the appropriations account.
It is to do with the bodies and I have therefore asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to produce a list of those on a Department-by-Department basis to see which Departments are the principal offenders. We will then call in those Accounting Officers. The Department of Health one, due to the establishment of the ETBs, was a set-up situation so there are understandably quite a lot of delays in that area. Notwithstanding that, the education sector has been a particular problem. I do not believe the Accounting Officers have paid sufficient attention to this area. They come in looking for money for public bodies every year and they have no idea why they are not in the audited accounts that have already been submitted in respect of prior years. Our committee will be putting down a marker on that. It is directly related to the report, Financial Reporting in the Public Sector, which was published only two days ago.
The Comptroller and Auditor General might say a few brief words on this topic to which we will return as we have a special report on it. We will not discuss it today but I just want to highlight it.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes. Since this committee has been in office, I have been trying to push the idea that prompt submission of financial statements is important. There are structural difficulties in the system and I have tried to set those out in a fair way in the report. I hope it is comprehensive and I will try to repeat it. This relates to the 2014 year of account. I will try to update it for 2015 so the committee will have up-to-date information. I will also try to replicate that reporting annually in order that a focus can be kept on this. The committee, ourselves and the audited bodies have succeeded in bringing forward the financial report and progress has been made. I would like to put that on the record. Even further progress has been made in 2016 but we are still in a situation where many bodies are quite late in completing the financial reporting process. That means that information is coming to the committee too late to address problems in a timely way.
Okay. We will return to that topic because there is a special report. The item before us today is to note the financial statements and accounts received since our meeting of Thursday, 16 February 2017. The first item is 4.1 - the Health and Safety Authority, which has a clean audit report.
The next item, 4.2, is the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency's €16.9 million turnover. It has a clear audited opinion and it relates to the 2015 accounts. It provides services and supports for social housing to the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Perhaps the Comptroller and Auditor General can explain a reference in his report to the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency. At the end of the 2014 audit that agency seems to have been substantially in arrears, according to page 30 of the report. Is that the same organisation we will be asking the Department about?
Okay, thanks. The next item, 4.3, is the Ordnance Survey Ireland, clear audit opinion, and the referral of pension funding is mentioned.
The next item, 4.4, is the Charities Regulatory Authority, which is a clear audited opinion.
Item 4.5 is the National Council for Curriculum Assessment 2015 - a clear audit account.
That is it for today.
I wish to comment on the Comptroller and Auditor General's opinion of the audits that have been done. There was a report that the Comptroller and Auditor General was working on where the issues were being compartmentalised. Was that submitted to the Chairman?
We have just received it and I have not yet looked at it.
We will now deal with our work programme. Today the committee is dealing with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Next Thursday, 2 March, it will be the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. We will be dealing with the central fund of local authorities, as well as progress on land aggregation and the departmental Vote.
On Thursday, 9 March it will be the HSE, dealing with patients' private property accounts, financial statements on the fair deal scheme and the health repayments scheme donations fund. Those are three specific topics for the HSE, so it will not be a general HSE discussion.
On Thursday, 23 March we will have the Department of Education and Skills. Can we start by agreeing some suggested dates for the third level colleges? We do not want it to take too many weeks. It is now in front of us on the screen. These are possibilities that are all subject to confirmation. I want members to have an indication of where we are going but the dates may change. They are possibilities for people to work on, however.
On 30 March we will examine the University of Limerick, University College Cork and NUI Galway. We will have to bring in each group separately, but it is a matter for us to decide. We will have a limited time for each group. If we did them one or two at a time it would take us from here to the summer recess. We want to cover them all, so we might restrict the number of questioners. Some members might ask questions of the first institution, while three or four might ask the next one. We will work that out, but if all 13 of us ask questions of every institution that comes in we will be here forever. We might therefore plan our own progress and timetable.
The plan is to try to do three institutions, but they will be long days if we are having three. There will be breaks at the end of each session, but if we did them any slower we would be here for far too long. There are other items to get on to. That is a possibility for 30 March.
On the 6 April, we will examine Waterford Institute of Technology, Dublin Institute of Technology, Dundalk Institute of Technology and the Higher Education Authority. Can they come any earlier or is that the suggested date?
We will try to confine it to approximately two meetings. If we go to a third one that is fine, but I do not want to have five, six or seven meetings. That is only a suggestion, however. Are there any questions?
I welcome the fact that some of the institutes of technology are in there. I have raised the point before that several of them are running significant deficits, which they are not allowed to do. We need to examine why that is the case.
As regards the third-level institutions, can I ask the secretariat to go ahead and finalise that suggested list?
That is agreed, and they will work ahead of that.
We are meeting at 2.30 p.m. in private session on the Project Eagle report.
I would hope that this afternoon we will have completed our entire first reading of the working document presented to us and by next Tuesday, the secretariat will be back with all the amendments, variations, additions and deletions that have been agreed. We will have to have a meeting for a couple of hours during which we will read a hard copy. Somebody has forced us into that by leaking the first document. If there is an issue not decided today and a paragraph still to be discussed on Tuesday, we can do that on Tuesday. If there are a few changes to be made on Tuesday, the secretariat will require a day or so to make those, with a view to launching it the following week.
We have not completed our first reading of parts of the document. We will not be going back on amendments; they will be here for Tuesday. Including the three meetings we have had so far and this afternoon's meeting, the revised document from the secretariat will be with us next Tuesday, not this afternoon. We will have the chronology of events this afternoon and some general discussion and conclusions. That would be, in my view, a draft document of the committee because it will have committee input but we will discuss it in hard copy form at that stage, subject to finalisation after that discussion. Is that okay?
That copper-fastens our view that we cannot release any further e-mail documents between now and then. It makes it a bit more difficult for us. We will have to spend a little more time here rather than reviewing the documents at our desks. So be it; there is nothing we can do. That is the position on the meeting at 2.30 p.m. afternoon. I hope it will not be too long because we are nearly at the end of our first full reading. We will suspend briefly to allow the witnesses take their seats.